Monday, February 17, 2014

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Schuren Revision 2

Name: Shannon Schuren
Genre: YA Contemporary
Title: Children of Psolemnity

The girls never get a choice. This has always been our way, for as long as I've been alive and longer. My father chose my mother, a fact he seldom lets her forget. Tonight, it is my turn to be chosen, and though the very thought of it turns my insides liquid, it is more from anticipation than fear.

I have a secret.

My mother perches beside me on one of the low benches the men have dragged out into the Mojave Desert. Tonight—and tonight only—we are allowed outside the high, concrete walls of Psolemnity.

She holds out a plate piled with sticky rice, some slices of roast lamb, and a crumbling chunk of bread. “You need to eat something.” She has to raise her voice to be heard above the throaty Tibetan chanting piped from big speakers into the open air of the evening.

The smell churns my stomach, and I push it away.

“I saw Ruth over by the food station.” She points through the crowd, toward the fire in the distance. “She looks as nervous as you. Perhaps more.”

“I’m not nervous.”

Ruth is terrified of what tonight will bring. She does not know who will choose her, or whose wife she will become. But I have no reason to share her fear.

Still, my stomach lurches again as I follow my mother’s finger and catch sight of the cave opening in the rocks behind us.

I’ve never been inside. Like most of our rituals, the men are free to attend. The women go only once, on their wedding night. Afterward, they are forbidden to speak of it. My own father is the only man I know well enough to ask about it, and he refuses to answer. I cannot imagine why the ceremony must be shrouded in such secrecy. Either the proceedings are too sacred to speak of, or too profane. Or perhaps women just attach more importance to these things.

After tonight, I will be able to ask my husband.

“Surely you can tell me something,” I say, watching my mother’s headscarf twist in the cool night breeze. “The time is nearly upon us. What will it matter now?”

She shifts her gaze away from mine. "It's better if you don't know." she says. "The unexpected should feel like a gift, not an obligation."

“What is one more obligation?”

She must hear the bitterness in my voice, because she sighs and lays a hand on my arm. “Please. Not tonight, Miriam.”

I pull my hand away. “I need to talk to Ruth,” I say, jumping from my seat and spilling the plate she has balanced between us. “Sorry.”

“Go.” She waves me off and kneels in the sand to clean up my mess.

I hesitate only for a moment. I should help her, but the urge to get away is too strong. I pull up my skirt and begin to jog, scanning the faces of the girls for my best friend, though it is a half-hearted gesture. I have someone else on my mind tonight.

I skirt the crowd, stepping behind the groups of chattering women and around the booths and tables where they are serving food. I walk away from the warmth of the fire, from the familiar sounds and smells, until I am far enough into the darkness to see the stars. They decorate the sky like thousands of candles, while back near the celebration, the smoke from our bonfire climbs toward Heaven like an offering to God.

I stop only when I have no choice, when the patrolling guards come into view.

We are free for this one evening every year, but freedom requires protection. The rest of the country—the rest of the world—do not live as we do. It is only inside the walls of our communal society that we are safe. Outside, people do unspeakable things to one another.

It is my greatest shame that I have tried to imagine these things.

But all I can picture is the vast desert, stretching out beyond me forever; faceless people hovering at the perimeter doing God only knows what. This life is all I’ve ever known. I was born here, and tonight I will marry someone who was born here, too. We are the Second Generation of Psolemnity. It is a title that carries its own obligations.

I walk back towards the firelight, my heart pounding loudly in the stillness. For the first time, I am afraid. Not of being chosen, but that I will be caught here, near the boys’ side.

From the shadows, I seek out Boaz. His eyes are bright, his skin bronze against the white of his shirt. His voice is warm and strong as he jokes with the other boys. They stand together, shoulders jostling, hands waving. My skin tingles at the sound of their laughter.

They sound just like Ruth and I.

We are not allowed to speak in the presence of men, and because we are separated whenever possible, they rarely speak in ours. The only time we are together for any length of time is Sunday, at Chapel. And at Chapel there is no speaking. That is a rule that even I have never broken.

His eyes are drawn to mine, like magnets, even in the darkness. There is a heat between us far greater than the desert sun. For a brief second, I worry that he will give away my presence. But then he smiles, the corner of his mouth curving like the crook of a finger. It is an invitation. I have felt this tether between us before, but never as strong as this. Tonight, it sends shivers of excitement down my body. Boaz is going to choose me, and I will finally know what it is like to speak to him. Touch him. Be touched by him.

There is a shift in the energy, a signal that I am too far away to catch. He turns—our connection momentarily broken—as the others begin moving toward the cave.

I must get back. I have been waiting for this night my whole life. If I am late . . . I don’t actually know what will happen if I am late, but it will not be pleasant. There is no time for keeping to the shadows. I break into a flat-out run, sand dragging my stride and chafing inside my leather sandals.

I don’t see Aaron until it is too late. I barrel into him, sending him flying backwards. My body quivers from the impact, and I flounder to stay on my feet.

The gangly boy lies on the ground, eerily still.

“Are you all right? Do you need help?” I kneel beside him, the words slipping off my tongue before I can catch them back.

“Miriam?” The voice is sharp and imperious, even with only three short syllables to convey her superiority.

Of all the people to witness this, why did it have to be Susanna? Her willowy beauty, though the envy of us all, masks the heart of a viper. Still, that won’t keep her from being chosen, probably first.

“Did you just touch him?” The words come out in a hiss, as if by whispering in his presence she will manage to avoid the punishment I am certain to receive.

Aaron scrambles to his feet, though I am not sure if it is my breach or Susanna’s reaction that shocks him into mobility.


  1. Shannon,
    I think you've honed this beautifully, creating an interesting and exotic setting and distinct characters and an approachable and sympathetic character. If you can keep this tension going I think it's going to be a winner. Congrats!

  2. This was already strong, but it sounds just about ready to go now! I still love the "I've got a secret" line, and I really love knowing where we are from the start. Also later on you ratcheted up the romantic tension even more somehow, so well done.

    My only comment left is totally nitpicky, but it was a change that was really jarring to me. The Tibetan chanting didn't seem right. Personal opinion of course, but to me Tibetan chanting = Buddhism, and I'm not getting any kind of Buddhist vibe off this group, so it just doesn't work (again, for me). I realize you've changed the music twice now, and I agree that it still needs something else, and something specific, but I'd suggest brainstorming a few other possibilities until you hit on the perfect detail. Maybe their own unique kind of music with a combination of instruments we don't usually hear?

    Really, that's the only comment I have. Best of luck with this!

  3. You’ve made leaps and bounds in the past two revisions. I was sort of plus minus originally (due to uncertainty about the setting and characters' motivations), but you’ve done so much to make me want to read on. It feels much tighter, better defined, tenser. SO much great work; very impressive!

    I understand your setup much better now. I’m 80% sure that it’s a self-contained cult, but there’s still 20% of me which is thinking dystopian. The headscarf and the lamb made it seem like an alternate universe where there are Arabic influences or something. If it’s in Montana for instance, I’d guess she’d be eating cows or buffalo, not lamb. Wearing straw hats or bonnets, maybe? Perhaps something less foreign would help.

    I really like the description of what she imagines outside. That does help me picture a walled-off cult. I could have used more though: "The Leader teaches us that the state we are in, the country we are in, the President of the United States himself is evil." Spitballing, but you get the idea.

    The line “I have a secret” felt a little out of place to me this time. Previously it had more power (at least in my memory). I was left scratching my head a bit this time. I'm pretty sure you're referring to her secret that she knows who's going to choose her, but I'd love to see that clarified.

    The Tibetan chanting is much better than Yanni. But it still didn’t feel quite right. Why Tibetan chanting – is the colony somehow tied to Tibet? And if she’s taught that everything outside of the walls is bad, why would they use something so specifically tied to what ought to be a bad country?

    Finally, I’d like to see a little more definition of her attitude toward the colony. She seems to be going along like a sheep (because she’s ashamed about imagining things outside the walls) but also defiant (“What is one more obligation?”). There’s an inconsistency there that made me hesitate. I’d like to better understand her personality, if she’s going to go all Rumspringa on the cult or if she likes the stability of it.

    Overall, I really like what you've done. An intriguing setup with characters I want to keep following. Very well done!

  4. Beautiful! I'm really impressed at all the small changes, they've added a whole other layer. I feel like I know this character more, she isn't as shrouded in secret, though there is still the great mystery to the situation that keeps me wanting to read more.

    Tibetan chants are definitely better than Yanni but it still felt off. If this society is as segregated and isolated as they seem to be then the chants feel a little worldly. I guess I don't know much about their belief system so dropping in the chants takes me out.

    Overall I love it. Great job!

  5. Great revision! I don't have much to say. I do think Jeff's comments are a good place to start. Only one other thing -- you have a lot of one liner sentence paragraphs like "I have a secret." They're good for keeping up the pacing and immediately cluing us in to what you're trying to emphasize. But if you use them too often, they start to lose some of that power. Are there any you can incorporate into the paragraphs above here? Or just watch out for this later :).

  6. This is really ready to go. One small grammar point: I think it should be the rest of the world--DOES not live as we do. One tweak for your consideration, while I don't feel totally bounced out by "I have a secret," I don't think you need that separate line. Maybe just try reading page aloud without it? Because you tell us the secret about Boaz so soon thereafter. If the rest of this ms is as tight (or getting as tight) as these pages, I'll look forward to hearing your got-an-agent and/or book deal good news soon! Best advice: Don't rush. If the novel isn't done, don't race to complete it or send out queries before you feel ready. A clean, complete manuscript is a must for new authors. Suggestions for process: 1-Try to use the comments from this revision experience as a lens for viewing the rest of the ms. 2-When you feel you've finished the novel, put it in a drawer for a week (or longer). Use that down time to research agents, write a synopsis and a query letter, maybe treat yourself to an ice cream! 3-After the "rest," re-read the manuscript. Are you still satisfied? Do you sense weaknesses? Make sure you go through the ms for technical things like date/time and proper noun consistency. Sometimes these unemotional reviews actually reveal insights about deeper issues you may want to address. 4-Consider having a good beta-reader or two go through the finished ms before... 5-Send that baby out! Very best of luck and thanks for your terrific work!